Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005
The opening decade of the 21st century has been taxing for political satirists and stand-up comics. It’s not that there was a dearth of material. There have been plenty of politicians and policies to lampoon. The problem has been that some of the world’s major leaders and some of the most passionate debates have pushed absurdity past all normal limits. Much political lifedomestic and globalhas become self-parody. And, what’s worse, considering the brutal and brutalizing events, the horrifying magnitude of our collective problems, even “gallows humour” has become difficult to sustain.
War, famine and pestilence are not just in evidence, but are actively encouraged. Death surrounds us. Death becomes us. Whether speaking of economics, ecology, ethics or education, it is difficult to catch a breath. Many of us, I am sorry to say, want to escape to the idiocy of private life. We plead anxiety, exhaustion and despair. Many of us are mirthless wimps.
We may therefore be grateful that human genius, even when pushed to the extremes of anguish and possessed only with the possibility of self-mockery, persists in displaying a beggared combination of grace, empathy and humanity that make even very tough times endurable.
Those who have seen him in person or watched his appearances over more than a decade on “The Daily Show” will understand that he is something of an acquired taste. He swears and he yells. He does not use the “F” word to shock or offend. He uses it as punctuation.
Lewis Black’s biggest fans compare him to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. His biggest fans include the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the late comedian George Carlin and me. Black and I some things in common. His favourite game in Las Vegas, for instance, is craps. Mine too. We’re both born under the sign of “Virgo, the sign of the anal-retentive.” I like to think I got over it. I know Lewis Black did.
This is what Feiffer said about him and consented to have placed on the book’s dust jacket: “When power corrupts, Lewis erupts.” Added Carlin, “Whenever I’m asked, ‘Who makes you laugh?’ or ‘Who would you pay to see?’ I don’t hesitate for a moment. ‘Lewis Black!’ Period.” I agree.
Lewis Black was born a few years after me. He was a fifteen-year-old high school student, and I was already in university when a singular event altered the perceptions of people of a certain age; that was the execution of John F. Kennedy. Nothing’s Sacred is Black’s biography. It starts with his childhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, and comes to a premature end as it fizzles out during the first administration of George W. Bush.
Fizzling out, by the way, is no criticism. What else could such a book do?
Along the way, we are introduced to some important family members who did things like move from Russia to the United States at the turn of the previous century. We catch a glimpse of his uncle Julius, who was an optometrist and who was “cool.” That gave him hope; “if an optometrist could be cool, so could I.” We briefly meet his young brother, who died much too young. He says that his brother knew that life was to be enjoyed, while he thought it was to be understood. His brother was right, he admits. “He was always right.”
The bulk of the book reveals Lewis Black’s time in high school as well as at the University of North Carolina and at Yale, his statutory trip to Europe and his years as a failed playwright. Half-way through the book, we are still following him through his sophomore year at UNC, but we are already getting hints of President George W. Bush.
For all practical purposes, the narrative ends in 1972, when Black had just turned twenty-four, and had just voted for George McGovern. That was truly the end of an era that began as “The Life of Riley,” gained gravitas with “Father Knows Best,” took off with the Beatles, crashed at Kent State University and burned with the re-election of Richard Nixon as president of the United States of America. “Since … I have gotten older,” Lewis Black says, “my memory has become a blender.” I don’t buy it. I’m awaiting the sequel.
One of the issues that worried Black at the outset is why he was writing a book. This is no exhibition of false modesty, for he quickly acknowledges that he had a revelation. He needed to answer a question, perhaps for himself and perhaps on behalf of people roughly our age, members of what college admissions officers like to call a “cohort.” This was it: “How could Dick Cheney and George W. Bush be around my age and yet it was as if we were living in parallel universes?” Incidentally, Lewis Black describes Cheney and Bush in language unprintable here, but not hard to imagine: think anal; think retentive; think sticks. No matter how it is expressed, however, it’s a good question, and Lewis Black answers it well, not by extracting deep historical insights from his geographical and artistic wanderings, nor from drawing profound philosophical conclusions from his reflections on political life. Rather, he lets the message emerge from sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching moments, recorded in a manner that make them seem like jokes … which, of course, they are.
One of the issues that worried me was why I chose this book to review in a journal of education read mainly by college teachers. I had less trouble than Lewis Black. The answer relates to a piece of alleged wisdom attributed to Sir Winston Churchill (among others): “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is twenty,” Sir Winston said, “he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is forty, he has no brain.” As a faint-hearted Canadian, I was not quite a socialist at twenty. As an American living at the tag-end of McCarthyism, Lewis Black wasn’t either … partly because he had not been successful in his study of economics, and partly because he seems to have had access to a quantity and quality of “illicit” pharmaceuticals that would make concentrating on the concepts of “use value,” “exchange value” and the “alienation of labour” unfeasible. What he did, however, was reject becoming old, foolish and ossified in his beliefs. Contrary to Churchill’s dictum, at forty Lewis Black had become systematically more “radical,” funnier and, I suspect, more courageous, or at least more focused.
Now well past sixty, I like to bring (however badly) elements of George Carlin and Lewis Black into my classroom. I only occasionally use the “F” word, and I am nowhere near as funny as either man. I do, however, aspire to being in the place where I can throw off the illusion of objectivity, ignore rules of decorum and reveal the arrogance and the ignorance of many unctuous, sanctimonious and smug politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and “opinion leaders”people who are my age and much younger, but who have managed to secure high office, wealth and influence. Since I teach mainly in the social sciences, political economy is my “area of expertise.” I am, however, always learning more about how to be a teacher, and Lewis Blackin content, style and commitmentis continuing to teach me, and to teach me well by both precept and example.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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